e-book Drama, theatre, and identity in the American New Republic

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Back to top. Get to Know Us. English Choose a language for shopping. Audible Download Audio Books. Alexa Actionable Analytics for the Web. Shopbop Designer Fashion Brands. Parts were assigned according to a system of "lines of business" such as tragic leading man or "low" comedian that tended to be rigidly hierarchical. Actors jealously guarded their parts in popular plays, which were generally treated as a form of property within the company.

Complicating matters further, the repertory system meant that a traveling troupe like the American Company performed a different play almost every night. Given the difficulties of establishing a theater industry in British North America, it is no surprise that individual actors did not achieve much fame. David Douglass, a master of marketing, concentrated his energies on "selling" his company to the most respectable men in any new city, often using his connections as a Freemason.

Prosperous men eager to be able to see themselves as on par with metropolitan Britons—and colonial audiences were almost entirely male, respectable women needing an escort to attend—were a key constituency both for gaining legal approval to act and for selling profitable box seats during theatrical seasons. Plenty of working-class men, as well as prostitutes, also attended the theater, although they were generally relegated to the upper "gallery" seats, which were sometimes separated from the lower seating levels by a spiked fence. The very same class of prosperous men upon whom Douglass depended for patronage, unfortunately, banished his players in when the Continental Congress banned theatrical performances.

The actors were forced to decamp once again for the Caribbean. The professional theater's exile lasted nearly a decade. In , a troupe led by Thomas Wall in Baltimore acted a few plays. In , Lewis Hallam Jr. They eventually joined forces with a group led by another American Company veteran, John Henry. Harkening back to their own pioneering days before the war, this group labeled themselves as the Old American Company although, once again, the actors were almost entirely British by birth. The individual egos of the performers and the growing market for theatrical performances which also led to actors being paid on salary , however, soon led to schisms.

In turn, the rapid fragmentation of theater companies in the early republic helped to initiate an arrangement known as "the star system" and contributed to a much more recognizable form of celebrity culture. In , Hallam and Henry recruited John Hodgkinson, who had played opposite Sarah Siddons in Britain; Hodgkinson quickly began lobbying for more parts, and by had become a joint manager and continued to collect more plum roles. In the popular low comedian Thomas Wignell, who had been recruited from Britain just before the congressional ban on the theater, left the Old American Company with several other veteran performers to create a company in Philadelphia, while other rival theaters soon emerged in New England and the South.

Wignell's subsequent recruiting missions to Britain brought in performers such as the former adolescent prodigy Anne Brunton Merry; the rusticated university man James Fennell, who had been disowned by his family when he went on the stage; and Thomas Abthorpe Cooper, who had been raised as a foster son by the radical philosopher and novelist William Godwin. A touch of romance in one's biography didn't hurt in the early American theater.

Drama, Theatre, and Identity in the American New Republic

Cooper, recruited by Wignell in , had by with considerable legal difficulty contracted with Hodgkinson and his new partner, William Dunlap, to play in New York. Under this "star" contract Cooper worked at a higher rate of salary than the typical member of a "stock" company would receive, and he was bound not to the company but directly to the managers, leaving him free to negotiate to play elsewhere. For the rest of his career, Cooper would be an itinerant star, moving between different theaters and playing set leading roles alongside local stock companies before moving on to his next engagement.

The American evolution toward the modern celebrity system had truly begun. Meanwhile, professional theater began to spread, both geographically and socioeconomically. Theaters opened in Boston and Providence, and as the country spread westward, new theaters could be found in such places as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and New Orleans.

Women, including working class women, appeared at the theater in greater numbers. New characters, such as the stage Yankee, the stage Irishman, and the stage Indian, emerged in response to shifts in the demands of the public for "American" shows, and a number of actors specializing in those roles emerged as stars. The working class audience of laborers, apprentices, sailors, and others still including prostitutes that filled the galleries, moreover, became increasingly boisterous during the post-revolutionary decades.

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Higher up the social ladder, some of the fashionable young gentlemen who began to attend the theater, such as Washington Irving, became increasingly discerning in their evaluation of the spectacles before them and began to evolve into drama critics. As a young man, Irving penned a number of essays on the theater under the nom de plume Jonathan Oldstyle for Salamagundi , the literary journal he co-founded with his brother William and their friend James Kirk Paulding. As the theater matured and spread further across the continent and the social divides of the early republic, more and more talented performers left their stock companies and took to the road as traveling stars in search of fame and fortune.


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This trend culminated in the career of Edwin Forrest, the first American theatrical celebrity in the contemporary sense of the word, the first great native-born star of the American theater, and the first star to commission plays for his own repertoire. Forrest, who made his debut in and continued performing until his death in , became an idol to working-class male audiences especially, a sort of surrogate Andrew Jackson. Forrest worked his way up from relative obscurity and poverty in Philadelphia by playing both Shakespearean leads and new, democratic heroes such as the medieval peasant Jack Cade and Spartacus, leader of a Roman slave revolt.

Forrest, especially in his prime, was everywhere. Drawings, prints, and photographs of him, including caricatures of his rather prodigious head, circulated widely. Theater managers were forced to bargain with him and take his terms for salary and casting.

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Possessed of a collection of proprietary star roles and a fan base that saw in him the embodiment of what they believed it meant to be a patriotic American and a man, Forrest achieved an unprecedented degree of independence for a performer. His power to dictate his own terms in the theatrical labor market far exceeded what his predecessor Cooper or any other earlier star had achieved. Forrest cuts a romantic figure of the star performer as a being liberated from the quotidian cares of employment in the theater industry.

For other performers, the theater was not so liberating. Olive Logan was raised in Cincinnati, the daughter of an actor-manager who specialized in "Yankee" roles. As a young girl she debuted in children's roles alongside touring stars like Forrest and Junius Brutus Booth. After retiring from the stage at sixteen to study in England and travel on the continent, she returned to the stage at the age of twenty-three in in a melodrama, Eveleen , which she had written as a star vehicle for herself. Never fond of a profession that she freely admitted she pursued solely as one of the few professions open to women in need of income, she retired in after a brief tenure as a star to pursue other interests as a journalist, lecturer, and advocate for women's rights.

In retrospect, her commentary on American audiences' preference for players over plays suggests both the appreciative memories of a popular actress and the aesthetic displeasure of an incisive theater critic. American audiences, however, did not always privilege players over the content of plays, especially in the early republican period, as illustrated by the theatrical career of Susanna Rowson.


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  4. Better known as the author of popular sentimental novels such as Charlotte Temple, Rowson was raised partly in Massachusetts by her father, a British naval officer who was eventually seized by the Continentals, deported, and repatriated in a prisoner exchange. She returned to the United States along with her husband, moved more by economic need than artistic ambition. While performing with Wignell's company in Philadelphia in , at which point Charlotte was already available from Philadelphia booksellers, Rowson wrote Slaves in Algiers, a heroic play about Americans held captive by Barbary pirates.

    The controversy that attended this production illustrates the inherent difficulty of reintroducing British actors to the American stage and the specific difficulties that faced women onstage in the early republic.

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    While Rowson's overwhelming emphasis in the play is on the generically American ideal of "liberty," one of her characters, an Algerian girl named Fetnah who has been sold by her father into the Dey of Algiers's harem, expresses the desire that women should be as free as men.

    Meanwhile, Rowson delivered the play's epilogue not in her starring role of Olivia, a captive of mixed English and American parentage, but as the author of the play. The controversy was brief, and Rowson went on to enjoy a successful, if short, theatrical career before retiring in to focus on writing books and opening a school for young women in Boston. Cobbett's intemperate critique of her play, however, illustrates the difficulties in the life of a performer, especially an actress, in the tempestuous cultural climate of the early republic.

    Logan, Forrest, and Rowson seem to have had very different experiences of fame. All of their careers, however, were wrapped up in contemporary discussions of national identity and gender that influenced the public perceptions of actors and their audience's ability to relate to them. Their careers also coincided with a long period of expansion in American print culture, particularly the growth in the market for theatrical material in American newspapers and magazines, as well as the growth in the demand for printed plays. This profusion of print fueled the development of celebrity in the American theater by facilitating the development of professional and amateur theater critics, opinionated readers and viewers who found their own "voices" in print by championing actors and plays that met with their approval and pummeling those that did not measure up.

    Beginning in the 's, enthusiastic fans of the theater found new outlets in print, whether in reviews and letters to the editor in papers such as The New York Daily Advertiser or, eventually, in magazines devoted to the theater. Such journals were, sadly, usually short-lived. The Dramatic Censor , a magazine that critiqued the dramatic offerings of the various theaters in Philadelphia, lasted just four issues between December and March The Polyanthos , a journal in Boston that published on a broader selection of artistic and intellectual topics and also sometimes printed engraved portraits of famous actors, fared somewhat better: it ran from December to September , and was then resurrected from February to April Meanwhile, as Julie Stone Peters observes in her excellent history of play publishing , Theatre of the Book , printed plays of the eighteenth century increasingly featured prints of stage scenes or of leading actors.

    American printers and booksellers apparently took notice of these new features in plays imported from London and began to follow suit in their own editions.

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    Celebrity prior to the nineteenth-century triumph of the star system was, however, a far more localized phenomenon than our own version, and one much less dependent on visual images. Images of performers rarely circulated as separate prints, rather than as portraits in a journal or an edition of a play.

    The American Antiquarian Society's Catalogue of American Engravings lists only six prints of performers prior to , for instance, and almost no graphic representations exist of the colonial stage or its performers. The most famous image of the colonial theater, however, illustrates how perceptions of both gender and nationality influenced early American theater. The noted painter Charles Willson Peale painted a portrait in oil of Miss Nancy Hallam, the niece of the original leading lady of the company, Mrs.

    Fidele is actually the disguised Imogen, one of Shakespeare's cross-dressed heroines. Goudie examines such anxiety and ambivalence as characteristic of what he provocatively terms the New Republic's "creole complex. Across an impressive array of genres and texts—state papers, empire tracts and political pamphlets, natural histories, autobiographies, lyric poetry, drama, and prose fiction—Goudie demonstrates how distinctions between U. Creole America thus compels readers to come face-to-face with disturbing affiliations between U.

    Culture "This startling book brings more fully to light the hold that the West Indies had on the American imagination in the era of the new republic and, as such, moves away from an idea of American exceptionalism to one of conflicted, trans-Caribbean notions of identity that affect the production of texts in a variety of genres: nonfiction prose, novel, poetry, and drama.